Are High End Memory Cards Really Worth It?

What is the difference between a $20 SD card, and a $120 UHS-II or XQD card, and are the premium cards worth the extra money? I recently got an XQD card and a Sony Tough Card, a hardened UHS-II SD card, and here’s what I found.

The cards used were (links are Amazon Affiliate):

The 3 test cards, slowest to fastest

To test the cards I am using a D850, shooting full resolution 14-bit compressed RAW files in continuous high. I was shooting high ISO to make sure the shutter speed wasn’t slowing it down, and shot the stopwatch on an iPhone. I then took the first 50 shots from each series, and compiled the times (a few times are estimates since the numbers are changing in the image). The running average is based on the current and previous 2 times.

I did not test exporting to my computer since it seemed to be limited by the speed of my external disk as much as anything.

By the numbers:

The first thing to look at is the time to fill the buffer. Faster cards get more shots since the buffer is emptying during the initial burst. This is probably the most obvious change between the cards while shooting, since you can clearly hear when the camera slows down, but as you can see there isn’t really that much difference between the cards.

UHS-I: 17 shots
UHS-II: 19 shots
XQD: 21 shots

Next question was how long it takes to complete the 50-shot set, and the average time between shots. Here the difference is much more striking:

UHS-I: 30.2 seconds, 0.64 seconds/shot
UHS-II: 13.34 seconds, 0.2668 seconds/shot
XQD: 9.39 seconds, 0.1878 seconds/shot

The last question is what is the maximum time between shots. Minimum isn’t really relevant since that is a function of the camera buffer:

UHS-I: 0.98 seconds, 0.93 running
UHS-II: 0.47 seconds, 0.39 running
XQD: 0.44 seconds, 0.29 running

The most dramatic differences in speed are between the UHS-I cards and the UHS-II, with XQD being another incremental improvement over UHS-II. While the totals and averages show the improvement, the most striking thing to me is that once it stabilizes, the UHS-I cards are running at a very consistent ~0.90 seconds/shot, where the XQD rarely goes above 0.35 seconds, and averages closer to 0.25 seconds. I was able to run off 60 shots at 5FPS on the XQD before it buffered at all.

So the expensive cards are demonstrably better, at least for fast shooting. Are they worth the extra cost? That depends. If you rarely or never use long bursts, the speed is not a benefit you will use. If you don’t have UHS-II slots you will not get the speed benefits, although UHS-II is backwards compatible. On the D850, if I want redundant cards an XQD is required, but is UHS-II worth it? For my uses, which rarely requires long bursts, I would say that all other things being equal, the UHS-II cards are probably not worth the extra cost. However, not all things are equal: Enter the Tough Card.

The Sony Tough Card

Unless you only have one card, and never take it out of the camera, you have probably destroyed at least one SD card. In my office I have a few where the write-protect switch succeeded in a desperate bid for freedom, some others where the halves are separating, or the plastic around the contacts is disintegrating.

Who needs a write-protect switch, anyways? I don’t think I’ve ever used it other than to say I had.

Sony looked at this and said “who uses write protect anyways?” and did away with the switch, one of the most common points of failure. With that gone, it was possible to create the body as a single molded unit, instead of the multi-piece construction commonly used. A further tweak is to remove the vanes around the contacts, which are less important with the contacts molded into the card.

Sony claims that the resulting card takes 180N to break vs 10N for a standard card. Not wanting to break a rather expensive card, nor having appropriate test equipment, I cannot verify this. However, the cards definitely feel quite a bit stronger, and I don’t think I would be worried about much other than running it over breaking it.

So I will probably be buying some more XQDs and Tough Cards, since I prefer to have the redundancy, and the hardened SD cards are much more durable compared to the regular ones, so I should not have to replace them any time soon. How about you? Will you invest in premium cards? Leave a comment on your thoughts below.

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